Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review of Exit Berlin by Tim Sebastian (Bantam Press, 1992)

When the Berlin Wall comes down, James Martin knows that life is about to change dramatically. Four years previously he defected to East Germany in the wake of a personal tragedy and the rounding up of a British network by the Stasi. However, Martin was a mole; placed inside the East German regime with the aim of discovering the real agent inside British SIS. Nobody seems to remember this though; it was easier to re-write history so that he became that agent and a true defector. Now it seems he is surplus to requirements and when a Stasi-KGB liaison officer is shot dead leaving his apartment block and his neighbour murdered, Martin decides to flee West, unsure who to trust but determined to identify the traitor and settle old scores before the Cold War ends. 

Exit Berlin is set at the time that the GDR and the wall collapses and revolves around the question: what happens to secret services and defectors when a regime folds. The protagonist is James Martin, a former British agent who defected to the GDR four years previously. Martin’s position is made more difficult because he is actually a double-agent, planted by the British to try and identify a traitor in SIS, though that fact seems to have been forgotten; an inconvenient truth when the different sides are trying to brush over cold war activities. Rather than returning to his old life, it seems it would be better for some if he disappeared altogether. Sebastian tells Martin’s story through a first person narrative. Though not always the most engaging voice given the character’s dourness, the tale nonetheless maintains intrigue, with Martin unsure of where he stands or who to trust among old colleagues both behind and outside the Iron Curtain. The characterisation, unsettled dynamics and sense of place is nicely done, though the plot is a times a little elusive and by the end I didn’t feel I had a sure grasp of all the intricacies. A decent enough Cold War spy tale.

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